There are a number of places on Earth that you can identify solely from a traditional musical instrument: bagpipes, didgeridoo, shamisen, banjo . Hawaii is on the list, and the instrument is of course the ukulele.
The name translates literally as “jumping flea”, though no one is completely sure why. One theory is that it simply refers to the way a player’s fingers jump around on the frets. Another is that refers to an individual, Englishman Edward William Purvis, an officer under Hawaiian King David Kalakaua in the 1880’s, who was an expert in the instrument but was said to be rather flea-like himself, i.e. small in stature and rather twitchy. Take your pick. In either case, it’s known to be a fairly recent instrument, developed in the 1880’s by hybridizing a few Portuguese stringed instruments brought to the islands by immigrants, brought from Madeira and the Azores to work in the sugar cane fields.
If you’re in the market for a uke in the Kona area, or are just looking for lessons or a dollop of local lore, your go-to place is the Holualoa Ukulele Gallery, which is something of a local institution, occupying a former post office dating from the early 20th century. Holualoa itself is a pleasantly seedy hillside village reminiscent of what an Old West town might look like if the sheriff’s office and saloons were replaced by art galleries. There are quite a few of the latter, some of very high quality. There is a lot of beautiful art to be found there, much of it created with local woods, e.g. koa and Cook pine. You can count some of the ukuleles among these.
The owner of the gallery is Sam Rosen, himself something of a local institution.
Sam is a ukulele maker, the term for which is a luthier. (Though a lute is a very old instrument, the word luthier itself dates from about 1850 and technically refers to any maker of stringed instruments.) Sam is full of history, a genial raconteur of such gentle persuasion that Alice has felt forced to warn me that she will not tolerate my taking ukulele lessons. Well, boo.